Small Demon
Nov 152008
 

Note: I began this post several days ago, but I haven’t felt much like writing. Partly this is mid-semester slump, partly that I have been busy with other things, about which I’ll have something to say anon.

It does feel different, doesn’t it, the country having elected Barack Obama president? For one thing, it appears to have driven the far right completely around the bend & that cannot be a bad thing. And though I am no kind oc constitutional literalist, it feels good to have a former Con Law prof as president-elect; after eight years of an extra-constitutional unitary executive, I was particularly happy to see this orgganization chart. And listening the the president-elect’s first news conference, I was struck by the tone of thoughtful intelligence and, yes, the use of complete sentences that followed sensibly from one to the next. The use of language marks a political divide in the modern US, as it probably always has, of course. High tone versus low down.

In fact, I heard the NY Times reporter David Kirkpatrick make an argument about the current state of the Republican party the other day on NPR that made the distinction between the “high” Republicanism of David Brooks and George Will and the “low” Republicanism of Sarah Palin & Rush Limbaugh. It is a division revealed by language and may be more important at the moment, according to Kirkpatrick, than the more usual divisons between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and imperialist neoconservative foreign policy hawks. Less remarked upon is a similar division on the left, between inside-the-beltway establishment liberals and the progressive grassroots, which has been newly energized by Barack Obama’s campaign. The blogger Digby at Hullabaloo, refers to these two camps as Villagers (the establishment) and DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). And one of the main things that marks these different groups is their use of language, which in turn reflects their different attitudes toward the intellect.

It does seem if Republicans are retreating toward their most radical core beliefs & adopting the attitudes of “low” conservatism & the rhetoric of small town bigotry, but that sort of politics seems to be losing its purchase in many places. Levittown voted for Obama. Michael Sokolove, author of the previously linked article, writes:

My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his [Obama's] words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that its not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….

Sokolove concludes that a combination of race & “his manner of speaking” made it difficult for the blue coller workers of Levittown, initially, to trust Obama’s message; ultimately, they voted for him, along with similar workers in suburban Detroit and other places. On the other hand, his race & manner of speaking cut no ice with the voters of the rural south and Appalachia, where race continues to dominate. In Macomb County Michigan & Levittown, on the other hand, the fading of racism allowed Obama’s message, ultimately, to cut through the class markers embedded in language.

Those linguistic class markers interest me as a poet. It appears that particular uses of language, at least on the political right, distinguish “high” from “low” modalities. (This may also be true on the left but the cases are not parallel.) Sarah Palin’s soccer mom dialect delighted her fans partly because they heard their own voices in it, while the mandarins of conservatism found her repulsive. We on the left laughed at her because we associate mangled syntax with stupidity. Palin’s truly pyrotechnic dismantling of syntax seems to me to be a desperate & only partly conscious effort to mask her ignorance — what high school & college students knowingly call bullshitting (as a term of art) when they write papers on books they haven’t read. All of this gets amped up & fed back by audiences celebrating their own ignorance & taking comfort from the spectacle of Palin celebrating hers. So the demotic is in bad repute at the moment, having been turned to destructive purposes. What seems so horribly wrong about Palin’s speech is that it borrows the strngth of demotic English, not to express thought forcefully — as ordinary, even “ungrammatical” English can do — but to cover for dishonesty and moral aridity.

Demotic language — comedy, pop music, even advertising — can, used honestly, drive toward the truth; they can of course also be used to to deceive, cajole, flatter, & pander. My sense of president-elect Obama is that he understands this, though he strikes me as being a little uncomfortable with the demotic. But I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I now have a president who speaks, not in Bushian bursts of static or Palinesque knots of blather, but in recognizable sentences that link togehter into coherent thoughts. In order to lie to the public, Bush & Palin had to lie first to themselves. I don’t think the president-elect is lying to himself & consequently I don’t think he will lie to me.

Oct 212008
 

1. I keep hearing about “the real America,” which is presumably different from the fake America of which I am indubitably a part. You know, until this phrase started showing up in right-wing discourse I was inclined to hear Obama’s talk of unity and coming together as campaign rhetoric; but now I see that it marks a real difference. The right is exclusionist, liberals inclusive by instinct, if not always in practice. Here’s just one example, from a bush-league congressman. Update: Only Real Americans® should be allowed to vote.

2. I don’t expect the McCain campaign to make the distinction, but there is a difference between criticizing someone’s approach to stem cell research or one’s health care plan and making darkly portentous statements about someone’s character that suggest the other guy is not a true American (see above). It would be nice if the news media enforced this simple distinction in the name of intellectual honesty.